January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and as it draws to a close, we here at the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence are thinking about stalking — about what it looks like, how we talk about it and respond to it, and how it impacts people’s lives.
The definition of stalking recommended by the National Stalking Resource Center is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.” But even with that definition, confusion and misinformation about this problem abounds. So this year, we are examining some of the key myths about stalking.
Myth 1: Stalkers only stalk strangers
While the popular image is of the stalker as a random stranger who catches a glimpse of someone through a store window and becomes fascinated by them on the spot, reality differs. In fact, the majority of of stalking victims are stalked by someone they know. And many of those (66 percent of female victims, and 44 percent of male victims) are stalked by a current or former intimate partner. So while it is true that stranger stalking happens, it makes up the minority of cases.
Stalking behaviors can include following a person, monitoring another person’s actions or repeatedly contacting them against their will. These are all also behaviors that can fall under the umbrella of domestic abuse. It is important that we realize that while stalking doesn’t always indicate a domestic violence relationship, abusive people frequently stalk their victims as a part of their plan to gain power and control. And it is a serious red flag: 76 percent of intimate partner femicide victims — women who were killed in domestic violence homicides — were stalked by their abusers prior to their murders.
Myth 2: It’s nothing serious
Despite that last statistic, stalking is rarely treated very seriously in our culture at large. Many of us glibly use “stalking” in our everyday conversation to indicate something as routine as running into a friend at the grocery store. Using the word in this way minimizes the reality of the act.
There are examples in pop culture, too. Consider the video for Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” which depicts Sugarland’s lead singer Jennifer Nettles stalking, kidnapping and drugging a man. Despite the lighthearted tone of the video — the boppy beat, the bright colors, the comical expressions on everyone’s faces — what the video depicts is actually an extremely serious situation. Unfortunately, it is all presented as a joke — even when the video ends with the singer’s fist punching the victim in the face.
In reality, stalking takes a serious toll on victims. Rates of anxiety, severe depression, insomnia and social dysfunction are much higher among people who have been stalked when compared with the general population. People who experience stalking report not knowing what is coming next, what to expect or how long it will go on. They lose time from work and have trouble functioning in everyday life. Treating stalking like a joke minimizes the experience of victims and contributes to the idea that what they are going through isn’t really that bad.
Myth 3: It’s romantic…or even sexy
This is another form of minimization. We may be encouraged to interpret someone’s repeated attentions as romantic or desirable. People experiencing abuse are often encouraged to interpret the abuser’s actions as something other than abusive. People may say, “He just really loves you,” or “I wish someone cared about me that much.” But repeated unwanted attentions are not flattering or positive; insisting that they are negates victims’ feelings and undermines their instincts about their own situations.
Attitudes like these are reinforced by popular culture, which often portrays unhealthy behaviors as romantic and/or sexy. While we have become somewhat more sensitive to portrayals of domestic abuse and rape, stalking still seems to lack critical attention as far as the entertainment industry is concerned. In Maroon 5’s recent video for “Animals,” lead singer Adam Levine plays a blood-soaked butcher trailing a woman through the city, planning to “eat her alive.”
Levine sings, “Yeah, you can start over, you can run free/You can find other fish in the sea/You can pretend it’s meant to be/ But you can’t stay away from me.”
The meaning here is constructed not only by the lyrics and the images — which are quite disturbing — but by the fact that Levine was People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2013 and is seen as a major sex symbol. Although the video did garner criticism in advocacy circles, it was widely accepted. The fact that anyone thought it appropriate to portray these behaviors as desirable shows how much we have left to do to change perceptions of stalking and of sexualized violence in general.
Myth 4: Cyber stalkers are all tech geniuses
Sadly, it is extremely easy to use today’s technology to keep tabs on someone else. One does not need to be a super techie or even to have the latest and greatest in technology to be able to track another’s movements, hack into their accounts, film them without their knowledge or invade their privacy online. And the implications for victims are far-reaching, from anxiety and depression to loss of job prospects. Perhaps most troubling of all, the misuse of technology to stalk can leave victims with the impression that their abusers really do know everything, that there really is no way to find safety or get help without the abuser being able to follow.
Thankfully, there is good work being done to counteract the swift evolution of cyber abuse. The Stalking Resource Center and the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s Safety Net Project are both great resources. Maine’s domestic violence resource centers specialize in safety planning, and can help those being stalked by an intimate partner to get help. For those experiencing stalking at the hands of someone other than an intimate partner, they can contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Myth 5: It doesn’t happen in Maine
In fact, we know it does happen in Maine — frequently. Stalking isn’t something that only takes place “out there” in the world. It is happening to our neighbors and our friends. It may be happening to you. The state of Maine has recognized the scope and seriousness of the problem by making stalking a crime.
It is time to move past the myths of stalking, to see it for what it really is: a serious crime that happens to too many people, too much of the time, yet is too often minimized by our culture at large. We know that it takes a community to say no to abuse and violence. It is time that we as a community raise our voices and say no to stalking, too.